“Dreams of Other Worlds”: Stardust and SOHO #WSW2013

Houston, we have lift off!

All week long for World Space Week, we will be posting exclusive excerpts from Chris Impey and Holly Henry’s new book, Dreams of Other Worlds: The Amazing Story of Unmanned Space Exploration. Each day will include an excerpt from a different chapter(s) about a different unmanned spacecraft, along with a picture of the craft that doubles as an iPhone background!

Today we have two excerpts. The first is from Chapter 6, and our excerpt talks about how Stardust was able to keep up with the intense speed of the Wild 2 comet to photograph it. The second excerpt is from Chapter 7, which describes “space weather”, which SOHO is able to track to warn us of any changes in our solar system.

Tomorrow will bring another chapter and another adventure, so stay tuned!

StardustMission controllers tried to sneak up behind Wild 2 to minimize the relative speed of the two objects. Even so Stardust was moving 13,000 mph, or five times the speed of a rifle bullet, as it flew through the glowing coma of the comet. It took seventy-two close-up photographs. That may not seem like many, but keeping the relatively small comet in the camera field of view during such a fleeting and high-speed encounter was a major feat.10 The images showed a surface riddled with depressions with flat bottoms and sheer walls, ranging in size from dozens of meters to several kilometers. The comet itself is irregular in shape and five kilometers in diameter. The features are impact craters and gas vents; ten vents were active when Stardust flew by.
The neatest trick Stardust had up its sleeve was gathering material from the comet tail. [...] All of the solid objects in the universe were built from microscopic dust particles—stardust. The probe was designed to capture material too small to see in its eight-minute ride through the comet’s tail and then its long ride home.
SOHOData from SOHO, and increasing concern over the impact of space weather, caused NASA to commission a new study in 2009. The resulting report provides clear economic data to quantify the risk to the near-Earth environment from episodes of intense solar activity. Extreme space weather is in a category with other natural hazards that are rare but have far-reaching consequences, like major earthquakes and tsunamis.34 It’s likely that more than once in the next twenty years there will be an “electro-jet disturbance” that disrupts the national power grid. In the 1989 event, the loss of some portions of the grid put stress on others and led to a cascade affect. The end result was power outages affecting more than 130 million people and covering half the country.
SOHO cannot prevent these natural disasters, but it can give two or three days’ notice of Earth-directed disturbances. And as we become more accurate in anticipating space storms, operators can place satellites in protective modes, shut down or limit power grids, redirect commercial flights, warn oceanic cruise and cargo ships, and place astronauts working on the International Space Station in the safest possible location on the station. Such steps will not only save lives but also protect the information systems that sustain our electronically fragile and networked global community.

Think you know all about these missions? Take our quiz and find out!
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